We’re heading into the twilight of this year’s book festival as Professor Ian Robertson takes to the stage.
As he introduces the title of the discussion, why happy dogs wag their tails to the right, a dog loudly barks from the back of the marquee.
“Okay, who’s the joker?” he jovially asks.
— Dalkey Book Festival (@dalkeybookfest) June 17, 2016
Professor Ian begins by putting three puzzles to the audience.
A group of researchers in Italy put a dog in front films of different things and filmed the dogs tail.
“As they showed the dog a film of it’s owner… his tail wagged both sides but wagged more to right.”
Then, when the showed the dog a film of a “big, Belguim beast of a dog”, the dog started wagging his tail more to the left.
The next puzzle involves last years Euros football tournament. In the final, there was a penalty shoot out between Germany and Italy. After showing us a video, Ian says when the team was down one goal in penalty differences, their goalie started diving more to the right than left.
Finally, he shows the audience different pictures of people kissing.
He then tells us that it’s been scientifically proven that of people who kiss hello/goodbye, 70% of them kissed to the right.
There is a “tension between avoidance and approach… at core of our lives and lives of all animals” Professor Ian says.
“A primitive conflict between going forward towards reward and retreating from punishment.” Should I take that medical test? Will I buy a house or is market going to collapse Should I ask her out or will she humiliate me? Should I change change job or stay safe where I am?”
These conflicts capture “the essential dilemma” which “is core to many many problems, including problems of stress.”
He then asks the audience to think of the brain in two halves. The back half of the brain deals with taking in information from the world. The front part, the receptive part, deals with acting on that information.
“These 2 half of the brain are a beautiful chervil mechanism” Ian says, referencing a mechanical term. “The optimal way of controlling a system is having two devices in opposition to each other. The two halves of our brain act in that way.”
As a result, one is always trying to suppress the other in “a friendly rivalry way.”
But your brain is “biased towards success…”
According to Ian, “not only are you inclined to believe good things would happen, but evidence for that comes easier to mind because the system is biased to retrieving good memories.”
This system is linked to “natural rewards” neurotransmitter’s of the brain, such as dopamine which is a natural anti depressant.
The right frontal lobe on the other hand, “is more to do with avoidance or retreat.”
When this system, this side of the brain is dominant, different neurotransmitter’s become more active, releasing hormones used in fight or flight. “Rather than anticipating good things happening, you’re worrying about bad things happening” Ian explains.
“The fundamental character of lives and brain is the tension of antics rewards and retreating… under the right circumstances, either one can become more dominant than the other and lead to problems.”
Ian then moves along and to what gets us up in the mornings? What causes us to get out of bed and live our lives?
There are three basic motivations; affiliation, achievement, power.
“Some of us are particularly motivated by the need to be liked or accepted”, which is affiliation driving them, Ian says. Each of these motivations has a corresponding fear. The fear of affiliation is “rejection; the greatest stressor known to mankind.”
For achievement, the corresponding fear is failure and power’s fear is loss of control.
“These motivations dictate our lives” Ian says.
“So lets talk about the dog. The dog when he sees his master, he wants to approach them. Because the approach system is more left frontal, that activates the left front part of the brain and that tilts it slightly rightwards, including the tail wagging.” Hence, why the tail wags more to the right.
In goalkeepers, we see this manifested in the motivation to save the goal when their team is down by one and for the kissing problem, this is about achieving a goal – i.e getting the kiss. Which is why people turn right; because it activated a particular part of their frontal lobe.
“This approach system is a natural anti-depressant” Ian says. “A study was done in Japan to show this drive, this achievement motivation, and how it’s linked to the reward network.” This is a system that is heavily influenced by dopamine activity.
In the study in Japan, they separated students into two groups. One group was offered money for every correct answer they got on an exam. The other group weren’t offered any money, but they were told the test was a measurement of their IQ.
“So they looked at how much activity there was in reward centre and they found the more achievement motivation the students had, the more activity there was in that area – but only true of those who were told it was an IQ test. For those who were doing it for money, there was no relationship. So money somehow scrambled this motivational system” Ian explains.
He says this shows a “crucial distinction into what motivates us – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.”
There are intrinsic motivations – doing things for your own sake – versus doing it for external reasons i.e money, which is extrinsic motivation.
“This turns out to be hugely important in the extent to which we can benefit from mood lifting good vibes of the approach system of the brain. This system works much better if working for intrinsic motivation rather than external” Ian says.
He then runs through the discoveries of some other studies; such as one that showed people in higher social classes more likely to make unethical decisions, cheat to win, endorse unethical behaviour at work and cut across in traffic. A risky study to reference given many of the audience members live in one of the most affluent areas in Ireland.
“However” Ian says with a wide smile “this only applied where people prioritised material benefits as a central value at the expense of other values.”
Basically, “If I don’t have values” to subscribe to, there are more likely to do these things.
Going back to the “right feel good system”, he says it has its downsides. It can cause “overconfidence, greed, addiction, blinkered vision, recklessness, lack of empathy, risk blindness, and loss of self-awareness.”
On the upside, it can make people “risk aware, have a broad attention focus, experience more creativity, have more self-awareness and empathy.”
As the discussion draws to a close, Dr Ian says he wants to show us the wider implications these systems and brain functions can have on society.
He cites a study done with city traders; on days where the traders testosterone was higher, they made bigger profits.
“If activated, [this system] produces more dopamine and activates the approach system.”
What this shows, Ian says, is “this [understanding stress] is about whole economies.
“Under certain economic and social conditions , a certain part of the brain gets activated and thats when you get the bull market” Ian says.
“Bankers, traders and dealers find it difficult to remember previous disasters, risks, downsides, etc. Then get the collapse in 2008 and then you get the bear market where you get the economic problem of low confidence. People find it hard to remember the good times.”
He said this causes “a mass change of brain function, by the social economic context. People start saving too much. In Japan and Germany it happened [after the 2008 downturn].People are not spending because it might collapse again. Ireland only climbed out [of this mindset] in last year or two.”
It’s an illuminating way of looking at the science of stress.
So, how do we cope with stress?
“It turns out that one of the very best things you can to do cope is to help break the lock of the avoidance system and give the approach system a bit of a boost.”
“One of the very best ways of doing that is to set a goal for yourself. Optimal effect is when is not too hard or easy, but when it’s in the goldilocks zone. Take action. By simply achieving goals, it gives the anti depressant approach system a boost.”
“So secret of unlocking and controlling stress is to use natural anti depressant qualities of approach system by taking actions” Ian says.
“One of problems of anxious people is because they are locked in a punishment anticipating avoidance mode, they do less.”
They are more likely to choose not to socialise or avoid other actions because “your mind is biased towards bad things happening.”
He says there is “clear evidence that chronic anxious people do less things. They take less action.”As a result, their reward system isn’t switched on meaning they don’t get a dopamine boost.
So the best way to cop with stress?
“Do stuff!” Professor Ian says with a broad smile. It might not be easy, but it is simple.
Pearls of wisdom from Professor Ian Robertson, "Fake it till you make it" #DalkeyBookFest
— Lynn McNally (@LynnDublin) June 17, 2016
The contrast between AN Wilson and Bruce Robinson is apparent the moment they open their mouths. AN is very upper crust British, appearing a gentlemen who would be concerned with all things proper and appropriate.
Bruce Robinson on the other hand is the rock’n’nroll anthesis to AN’s restraint; a man who you imagine rather enjoys being able to give the middle finger to the establishment.
Yet here they are, on stage together, with AN doing the host and Bruce doing the telling to discuss a common interest – Jack the Ripper.
AN begins by saying “Bruce thinks he’s cracked it [the mystery] – is that right?” he asks.
“More or less” Bruce agrees.
“Shall we set the scene?” AN asks, gearing the audience up for what’s to come.
Bruce begins the tale.
“We’re in late Victorian London. England is the greatest Imperial power on earth bare none.”
In London, there are “vast stretches of wealth and poverty” and “into this scenario comes this series of very very brutal murders of prostitutes. Women who were treated like trash all their lives.”
Women who worked as prostitutes because it was “the only way to get 4p for a doss house”.
AN interjects to say “there were actually far more prostitutes in upright London than so called gay Paris” at the time.
But “upright London” was far more sinister. Bruce says that “In 1880s you could literally f*ck a child for a fiver. You could beat them up with wires in sound proof rooms for 5 quid.”
It’s was a gruesome time.
“This is the world of Jack the Ripper” and at the time, “people running the society were the indulgers in this stuff with the kids” Bruce says.
“Very often little girls were taken to doctors and had their vaginas surgically repaired to appear like virgins. 9,10,11 year old girls; these guys in their top hats wanted to screw virgins. This is the kind of scene were in” he adds.
The tale of Jack the Ripper begins “one night in the autumn of 1888. A woman was brutally murdered outside a place called Toynbee Hall.”
Phillip Toynbee and his wife had set up a “kind of university for poor people in London.”
“Lots of people from rich areas in London would come down and give lectures to the poor people of the East End” Bruce explains. “Opera stars, writers, Robert Browning went down, lots of painters.”
Before we “get to the killings”, Bruce says he wants to tell the audience “how I got into this, it wasn’t pre-planned.”
“I was living in Los Angeles and I’d read Raymond Chandler’s book called ‘Raymond Chandler Speaking’ and he talked of two crimes. One of the crimes was Herbert Wallace who may or may not have murdered his wife.”
This crime was “one of the great mysteries” and Bruce wanted to write about murder mystery
He “came back to London and started trying to research” this crime. He then “ran into true crime researcher I had worked with 30 years before when we were both actors I couldn’t believe he ran this outfit now researching for the BBC.”
Bruce continues on. “He talked to me over lunch about Jack the Ripper and this thing that had been discovered – The Diary of Jack the Ripper.”
The more his friend talked about Jack the Ripper and this recent discovery, Bruce said “the stock of Wallace is going down as Jack is coming up.”
After his friend said “no one is going to bust Jack the Ripper”, Bruce said “I bet a fiver I can.”
— GutterDalkey (@GutterDalkey) June 18, 2017
— Kerry Gordon (@kerrymgordon) June 18, 2017
So began a 15 year journey of researching the case. It was “a monster, a nightmare” Bruce says.
But one that resulted in a highly rich book, which he now begins to delve into.
“So I started looking at the murders. Each one of these woman have a cut throat from lowers up to her throat, entrails taken out and thrown over her shoulder, all metal removed from her body and left around the body.”
It was “ritualised killing” Bruce says.
“He [Jack the Ripper] was repeating himself with these corpses. It’s a ritual.”
A ritual of what though, Bruce asked himself?
“Had all corpses been left in a crucifix position, I would’ve thought I’m looking for a Christian nut here. So I start researching and genuinely have no idea what this ritual was.”
He was looking and looking and “freemasonry pops up.”
“The penalties for betraying masons… are to have the throat cut across, guts ripped open, entrails thrown over left shoulder… and Masons are not allowed wear any metal again in a masonic lodge.”
“All these victims are adhering to patterns and I think christ almighty… at least I’ve got a bit of traction” in regards to a theory to explore, Bruce says.
“So now I’m researching [freemasons] and it becomes clear that the whole of Victorian society was infused by freemasonry.”
It’s at this moment that I think it would’ve been brilliantly ironic to hold this discussion in the Mason Lodge in Dalkey Village.
Bruce wondered why the police, who were constantly telling the press and public that there weren’t any clues when there were. How Jack the Ripper was killing these women “was a clue in itself.”
“In the 20th century, we have FBI profilers who would be looking at this kind of detail. In the 19th century they didn’t have that. I had the advantage of reading everything, every single thing I could obtain about Jack the Ripper and I was able to put this picture together of masonically decorated bodies.”
The head of the Metropolitan police at the time of the murders was “a man called Charles Warren” and he did not care about these women.
“The only time he went to the East End was the night of double event as it’s known; the ripper hit two women that night.”
Having killed the second woman an hour and a half after the first, the ripper “walked back into the manor of met police and threw a piece of her bloodstained apron in doorway and wrote ‘the jews are not the men to be blamed for nothing’.”
It is this message that drags Warren out of his bed.
The police “wanted to photograph this message as a piece of important evidence, along with the apron. He [Warren] rushes down in his carriage and refuses to allow this to be photographed as evidence.”
Theres an argument for 30 minutes between the metropolitan and city police over this and Warren overrides the city cops and forces them to wash the words away.
AN asks “So how do we know about it?”
Warren makes a statement to the Home Secretary about it and says there is so much anti semitism in London that the inclusion of this message and it’s coverage in the press would incite a riot.
“Nothing could have been further from the truth” Bruce says. “What isn’t in my book because I only found it out about three months ago is that jew is an ancient word in masonry.”
In October 1888, “right in the middle of this” Bruce says, “secreted in basement of new police headquarters is discovered a woman cut in half; like in King Solomon’s judgement”, an important piece of masonry text.
The Head of the Metropolitan Police, Bruce says, was “one of worlds most important freemasons.” There was “no way on earth Charles Warren could not put what was happening together with freemasonry.”
Bruce is quick to add “I have no downer on freemasonry any more than I have on buddhism or anything else… but clearly we are looking at a freemason taking a piss at the police.”
Bruce moves on to reference a book that came out some years ago, claiming to having solved the mystery of the Jack the Ripper murders. This book “that Great Victoria’s grandson was the ripper” was “complete b*llix” Bruce says.
“He [the author] got it from a source at Scotland Yard that said this is the way to go, look out for Duke of Clarence… I wanted to know where he got this idea from and honestly it took bloody months.”
It turned out the information had “originated from a man called Robert Stole who was a very senior freemason. What this Duke of Clarence b*llix was about was to inoculate the world from going after freemason. It was complete nonsense. But a pretty good way of trying to deflect attention” Bruce says.
Bruce said he took “15 years to write this thing [his book]. I was looking at every possible candidate, researching the arse out of it to see if there was anything there.”
He hit upon something when he came across a man named James May Brick “who supposedly had written this thing that was published under the title of The Diary of Jack the Ripper.”
James was a cotton broker married to young American woman named Florence. In 1889, she was sent to prison for allegedly murdering him. She was sentenced to death but spent 15 years in prison waiting to be hanged.
“Did she actually kill him?” AN asks?
Bruce believes the answer is no. “He was murdered by Jack the Ripper.”
James May’s brother Michael was a famous singer. “The Tom Jones [of his day] if you like” Bruce says, admitting he doesn’t know any more modern singers to name as he doesn’t listen to them. As a side note, he (mistakenly) reveals that he thought Robbie Williams was dead; which AN corrects him on, much to the amusement of the audience.
Getting back to Michael May Brick, he was “extremely wealthy, homosexual… a very strange men.”
So Bruce’s attention switches from James to his brother Michael, as James was dead when the Ripper made his last killing.
Bruce then finds a connection. “Police in London were getting jeering letters from all over the country saying you’re a gang of bloody goats and idiots”. In the letters, the Ripper would say “I’m off to Birmingham, I’m in Bradford next week.. signed Jack the Ripper.”
“Suddenly I got a click on it thinking what was Michael May Brick doing in the Autumn on 1888 – he was touring. He was performing all over the country.” The man who was “bigger than Gilbert and Sullivan” at the time.
“I was able to match these letters to his concert dates” Bruce reveals.
AN admits that “I now understand why you have this bee in the bonnet because I’m convinced by this story.”
“You’re suggesting that he was a pervert who happened to be a freemason” AN adds.
Bruce replies “He was taking the piss at the police cause all the police were freemasons.” More than that, there was a cover up of his identity.
“You’re not suggesting that [cover up] has anything to do with freemasons?”AN asks.
Bruce confidently replies “As a matter of fact I am and as a matter of fact it does.”
They then go off on a tangent where Bruce says “Maggie Thatcher probably was freemason” and that “Theresa May is probably a grand master”, to which the audience laughs almost nervously.
Getting back to the topic at hand, Bruce teases the audience with some tantalizing information.
“I’m in possession of information that I wasn’t allowed to publish without breaking the law. Consequently I didn’t wanna get hassled, I’m getting enough hassle” for this book he says.
As he wasn’t allowed publish the information, he put it as “a footnote in the book. I suggested it” because the police refused to release the information.
But this information has now “come to light in the public domain.” The information is that “This so called diary [The Diary of Jack the Ripper] is a forgery of James May Bricks.
This is important, Bruce says because ” This man, -Jack the Ripper – Michael May Brick, murdered James his brother and framed James’ wife Florence for it… the diary is extreme important in this context.”
For readers who want the full story, they need to buy the book (which I did happily).
So what happened to Michael, AN asks?
“He vanished. They [the establishment] knew he was the ripper and told him to get out. At the height of his career, he vanished. He’s not even in Groves dictionary of music and musicians… these guys disappeared him.”
It’s a bold claim, but one that Bruce is confident of.
“He was a member of clubs in London that the head of police and the Prime Minister were members of… he vanished.”
There was nothing heard about him for 7 years; Michael May Brick was banished to the Isle of Wight, according to Bruce.
“He wanted to come back to England, but he was no longer part of that society that he had been at the top of.”
he was told to get out by the establishment by which he was a member. he died in 1913 in yorkshire.
The establishment, according to Bruce, let Michael away with his crimes because of his choice of victims.
“It suited them… [killing] a few whores in East End cause nobody’s gonna get too uptight about that”. If it were the “Chelsea wives or Kensington Hags going on slabs”, it would’ve been a different story.
Michael died in Yorkshire in 1913. But, what happened in between the Jack the Ripper killings and his death? Does Bruce think he just stopped murdering people?
“At some point, serial killers can’t bear to be anonymous. They want to be known and slip up…serial killers believe they are walking gods and can’t believe nobody else isn’t amused by what they’re doing” Bruce says.
“He was killing people all over England. He was a full blown psycho… he killed a lot of children” Bruce says, which he details in his book.
One of the last murders of Jack the Ripper was Mary Jane Kelly. IN freemasonry in the Bible, the high priest hated women. He gave instructions of how to kill them. When the Ripper killed her, “he killed her he killed her to [these] instructions of what [the high priest said] you need to do to a whore… cut her tits off, burn them on fire…this exactly what he [the Ripper] did. Mary Jane Kelly was 24 years old.
Bruce believes that the prevalence of freemasons, from the police to the police doctors to the coroners, allowed these crimes to go unpunished.
It is a fascinating and enthralling hour. As I mentioned earlier in the blog, I bought his book and there’s really no better recommendation I can give than that. It is a must read for those with an interest in Jack the Ripper or true crime. For those of us who got to spend 60 minutes in Bruce Robinson’s company, more than one person left persuaded that he had indeed cracked something.
It’s a full house in Town Hall for the panel on Free Speech & Cultural Appropriation. Hardly surprising given the panel; Marlon James, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Shashi Tharoor, Louise de Bernières and Han Yujoo.
The discussion begins by asking is the freedom of expression absolute?
Shashi says “I wish I could say yes but I won’t.” He doe believe, however, that if you “leave it to society to draw their own lives you often find yourself surrendering to the most intolerant.” He says that in India, more and more groups are campaigning for “the right to be offended.”
Marlon is rather fittingly, wearing a t-shirt in tribute to William Burrowes ‘The Naked Lunch’ – a book that was banned in many countries and still is in some.
He believes that “venue and forum is not absolute but I do believe in free speech.”
Yassmin states that there “already are caveats on free speech so it isn’t absolute.”
Louis mentions a well known Voltaire quote “I don’t agree with what you have to say but I will defend to death your right to say it.”
His father served in the army during World War II and it is “deeply ingrained” in him that free speech is an absolute. He says that “where it goes wrong is when people do it in seriously bad manner without respect to the sensitivity of other people.”
“I claim the right [to free speech] but not the right to bad manners” he adds, which the audience laughs at. He references how he doesn’t engage with social media as he “doesn’t see the point to it”. To him, it just seems to be a place filled with horrible people.
Quick out the gates, Yassmin says “I think people have always been that bad but now theres more platforms.”
Louis then agrees, saying “If you read Voltaire’s memoirs it’s an absolute list of people behaving like bitches”, which elicits more laughter from the engaged audience.
For Sharad, a public life means he’s more vulnerable to abuse. But what he finds odd are the “unpleasantly nasty people” who reach at you from behind their computers, but then are really nice in real life.
He adds that while people have a right to free speech, “if they’re being totally offensive you don’t have to subject yourself [to their abuse].”
Using a metaphor of shouting fire in a theatre as a joke and then causing deaths through a stampede of people trying to get out, he says a line needs to be drawn about where your right to free speech affects other people.
But who gets to make that decision?
Switching back to the subject of social media, Yassmin feels their is a generational disconnect in understanding its importance. “It’s hard to exist in a public space for young people without social media.”
She also says that in talking about freedom of speech, “we ignore the context we are having these conversations.” It’s ignoring the kind of people who get this freedom.
“There are histories that affect people, colonisation, inherent power structures, current power structures… those in power get to decide who says what most of the time. She adds that they will defend free speech, but not for those who they disagree with.
In Australia where she lives, she said free speech is valued, except when it comes to a muslim saying something. Then “free speech doesn’t apply to you, missy.”
Marlon believes that “One of reasons Trump could move so well [in terms of increased popularity] is because we have a reductionist way with ideas.”
He says he is all for freedom of speech until someone starts defending un-defendable ideas.
Sharid replies that “They have a right to say what they say and you have a right to not hear it.”
At this point, Yassmin interjects. “But that ignores the context of people who do have the ability to stop people saying things because of structural power..”
“Minorities can be silenced very effectively… They do not have access to media, political power, to big business to do same thing. It’s not a level playing field. If we have this conversation like the world is fair, it blinds us to reality.”
It’s a powerful and succinct point.
“I come into every conversation with a lifetime of certain types of discrimination and privilege and we forget that context” she adds.
The issue of fake news naturally arises and Sharid gives a horrifying example of the effects it can have.
“Fake news was saying that people in the North East of India were assaulting and killing muslims.” The organisation used pictures of victims from a cyclone disaster and portrayed them as victims of this fake attack.
There was an “immediate backlash”. Muslims began threatening North Easterners muslims you had “upwards of a million people fleeing their home to escape from something they had never done.”
The panel then moves onto the subject of satire, referencing the Charlie Hebdo cartoon and subsequent attack.
Did the publication have a right to publish that?
Yassmin says that while they did have that right, “you should punch up.”
“If there is a group in society that has less privilege than you, punching down isn’t funny. Its lazy… thats just bullying. Where as if you punch up, that’s maybe how you take a bit of power back.”
Marlon agrees. “I would rather you punch up but I still support your right to punch down. It’s always easy to defend satire when you’re on the right side of it.”
He says that there is a general guidance that “people with a history of oppressing a certain set of people don’t get to make jokes about them – but I don’t know if thats something i want to enforce.”
Yassmin says the oppressed are “always having to just be copping it on the chin.”
She thinks that satirists “want to make fun” but then not be criticised. “I never advocate for violence, but they get upset when there are critics and you’re like ‘mate you’re being rude’ [about people].”
Marlon thinks that “one of funniest things about political correct people is how thin skinned” people can be.
“You get the right freedom of speech, but you do not get the privilege of escaping critique.”
As the discussion moves along to cultural appropriation, Louis says “I don’t see how it’s possible to be in arts without being an appropriator.”
He adds that “not one of my books I could’ve published if I had been hypersensitive” as the “whole point [of fiction] is to imagine what it’s like to be somebody else and put yourself in their place and have their experience by proxy.”
Yassmin doesn’t disagree with his summary, but says the problem lies in “when characters are not white men or women, they [writers] fall back” on stereotypes.
“Someone like me does not ever get to see fully developed characters I can every relate to. There’s not that many writers of colour in the Western World because of the structures we live in. The only characters of muslim women are either oppressed or jihadis.”
She feels that these writers are lazy. “They [authors] don’t wanna give characters depths.”
Marlon identifies with where Yassmin is coming from. “Nobody is stopping you writing horribly” he says but “If you’re not trying to reflect it at least respect it.”
He references the Heart of Darkness,” instead of reflection or embodying a character”, Conrad “merely projects his fears…and then reacts to them.”
It’s not only in literature that there is mis-representation. “Iggy Azalea doesn’t even know words she’s saying!” Marlon says, followed by more audience laughter.
These reinforcements and appropriations have “a real impact on our lives” Yassmin says.
Authors can rely on stereotypes to create black or ethnic characters, people that you “may not have experiences with” but you read about.
“Then you think maybe there’s a bit a truth [in what they’ve read] and take that perception” and when they do meet that person, “engage with them on that level” they’ve read about.
“Writers have a responsibility” she adds.
It’s a complex discussion and one that doesn’t have an easily resolved answer. It needs to take into account a number of factors; from race and background to intention and context. It’s an issue that is only going to become more relevant as more and more of our conversations take place in a digital context; an arena that doesn’t always allow for nuance in a very grey area.
Dr Sharad Paul is a very special man.
Not only is he a skin cancer surgeon and specialist, he’s an author, an evolutionary biologist and a professor. He’s the only person who has written fiction, non-fiction, poetry and medical text books.
Out of the 150,000 skin cancer patients he has treated, 100,000 of them were pro bono. He is a man that does what he does out of a place of passion and care.
As the mercury rises, a crowd gathers at the Seafront Marquee to listen to Sharad demonstrate his medical expertise.
His most recent book, The Genetics of Health, informs people how to manipulate their genes to maximise their health. A bold thesis given that one might ask what, if anything there is, you can do about genetic predispositions.
He begins by saying “Firstly, I like to differentiate health from medicine. Health is something we have to take personal responsibility for. There’s a glaring similarity between law and medicine… Law often won’t translate into justice and similarly medicine won’t translate into health.”
As the audience listens to Dr Sharad, it becomes clear that there are a myriad of things that affects ones health and there are even more ways that this manifests itself in your body.
“From your skin, you can tell what’s going on underneath. I’ve patients for years and you know something else is going on [when you see them having skin problems]… when you see someone’s skin has changed and you ask what else is going on, there will always be something behind it.”
eating/drinking affects it? why is it in medicine, why do we check gene type in medicine?
So what about our genes, what role do they play in health?
“Genes are our blueprint, but they’re not our destiny” Sharad says firmly. He admits that “Sometimes it’s a bit scary” when you discover the implications your genes can have for other things. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do.
He then brings a fascinated audience through a variety of things genes can tells us – from how Sharad predicted Trump would become the next US President based off of a genetics study to how female politicians will only be successful in elections if they are conservative.
Other things we learn include:
Sharad tells us such random and fascinating facts to illustrate the many ways genetics determine things in daily life. In his latest book, he shows how you can eat and exercise for your specific gene type.
When he began his research to discover which types of exercise were the most effective, “I thought I would be writing about yoga or trendy things” he says.
Instead, “The most effective method of all exercise forms is the tango.”
Sharad was at a book festival when he shared this discovery. What he didn’t realise was “the man who taught Al Pacino how to dance the tango in Scent of a Woman” was in the audience. The man found Sharad afterwards, told him and then gave him a tango lesson.
Our own dancing in Ireland it turns out is pretty beneficial to out health. “There is a reason we can finally forgive you guys for river dance!” Sharad quips. It turns out any exercise that includes you holding onto something, moving your legs a bit and a bit of endurance is very good for you. In fact, if it’s done often, it can reduce the risk of dementia.
Yoga, unsurprisingly, reduces stress and blood pressure. `Ideally, you should begin practicing these exercises 40 and under, ideally.
It’s clear that Sharad has an insatiable curiosity about his pursuits. He swabbed his dog just to discover how he differed genetically from a wolf. Genetics is a never ending curiosity for him.
So much so, that he did a genetics test on David McWilliams and Sian Smyth!
As he reveals on stage in front of the audience, David doesn’t have the laziness gene (is anybody surprised by that?). Him and Sian are also both fairly natural athletes. David does need to avoid saturated fat or else “he’ll get a big butt” and he needs to consume more omega 3 and vitamin D. So if anyone wants to send David a care package of cod and salmon, his body will thank you for it.
We also discover that he has an achilles tendon injury risk so he should strap his ankles when he does sport.
It’s a fascinating display of the wealth of things we can learn from our genes. There are ways to overcome our genetic blueprint – for example, if you’re not a natural athlete but you commit yourself to regular exercise, you will overcome your genetic deficit.
But as they say, knowledge is power. In order to overcome or less than desirable genes, we need to know how to spot them. You can find how by reading Dr Sharad’s book, “The Genetics Of Health”. It’s guaranteed to be a fascinating read.
It’s normally only on match days and special occasions that you would see Finnegans pub packed with people at 11:30am. But such is the draw of the charming Sharad Paul and the unflinchingly honest Donal Ryan that the people here are sipping on juices and coffee instead of pints in the Dalkey establishment for their talk “Who’d be a Writer? Don’t Quit The Day Job.” They’re joined in conversation by Paula Shields.
As we learn over an hour of conversation as spell-binding as any one of their books, being a writer is a lot of hard work, a lot of determination and a of something that’s a bit undefinable.
Both men are writers who hold other jobs, Donal in the civil service and Dr Sharad as a skin cancer specialist (among other things).
When it came to big success, it wasn’t something Donal Ryan had in mind.
Speaking about his first book, The Spinning Heart, Donal says “I was kind of conditioned to the idea of it selling 2,500 or 3000 copies and fading back into obscurity, and that was fine!” to peals of laugher. ]
“It was a real shock [for it to be so successful]. Unexpected. John Banville said the curse for a writer is to be best known for first book and it’s kicking in a bit now.”
He adds, “I was never thinking this would sustain me for rest of my life… I’m a bit of a coward.”
Donal than confesses he wonders how full time writers make money. “How do you pay for things? I still don’t know.”
Donal has been very honest about the making money as a writer and dissuading the myth that he must be rolling in the moolah because his book has been a critical success.
Looking back now, he regrets a little talking about being quite broke around 2009/10. “My mother said ‘Why on earth would you say that in public? Just ask me for the money and I’ll pay it for you!’. So I thought if I could make 10 or 20 grand out of the book, it would be great.”
For Sharad, writing also came from a place of necessity – a creative one. He used to run a book store and teach creative writing and he thought “Maybe I can write. I think I can write.”
When it comes to the business of getting published, he talks about deciding between taking a book deal or potentially going to a kind of open show in Frankfurt and running the risk as to whether someone would bid on his book or now.
“There’s a South Indian proverb that only the crow thinks it’s baby is beautiful. So I thought this [my book] might be a crow baby.”
“Anyway, so 10 days later, she rang me [his book agent] and she said ‘I think we should go to Frankfurt’ and I said ‘crow baby in hand is worth two in the bush’.” He took the deal.
It turns out that even after you get published, writers don’t feel like they have it all figured out.
“I’m still learning” Sharad replies when Paula asks him about the business of publishing
In terms of monetary success, it’s not a case of a book deal and big cheque going hand in hand. “It depends on where you are in the pecking order” Sharad says. There’s the few at the top, the powerhouses, who’s books are global bestsellers. Then there’s the middle, “where people like us make a bit of money but quite often you need a day job. It’s not fair to kids [to say] I’m a struggling writer and I can’t the pay school fees… [there’s] responsibilities to families.”
Donal explains the business of writing through an Irish context. “In Ireland at certain times of year, 300 books will do it. It’s easy to get into the top 10 in Ireland, it doesn’t take a lot. You need to be in certain genres to have a good shot at making the money.”
For Donal, he thinks the crux of successful writing is “a big central idea… you create a black hole of attractiveness and suck people in.” The reaction he gets to his writing however, isn’t always a riveted one. “When I saw I’m a novelist – a literary novelist – people’s eyes glaze over and they don’t wanna talk about it.”
But he does admit that once you top a bestseller list, there is an assumption that it must mean your book has also been a monetary success. “I was with my brother in law in a van driving over the mountain and he said really seriously ‘Have you got a million euro?’ and I said ‘I don’t even have a thousand euro!'”
The audience roars with laughter before Donal continue on. “I had to get AIB banking on my phone to show him! And he goes, ‘you’re an awful fucking eejit’…”. The audience roars again with laughter.
If a writer manages to break into the UK or US, it’s a game changer. “They’re much bigger and very attractive. But breaking it is very hard” Donals says. “I went to American for 3 weeks [on a book tour] thinking at the end at least I’ll be famous! About 5 people in American know my name.”
Sharad says that generally, he finds it easier to sell his non-fiction books then his fiction ones. He has a friend in publishing and he said the year Twilight took off, it was “all vampires” in the world of publishing. “Then next year, it changed to werewolves. So this year I asked, what is it. Now it’s all sci-fi.”
These trends can go a long way to determining whether a book even makes it onto shelves or not in any given year. But, as the essence of a story, Sharad says “It’s still the same. Two aliens, fighting over another alien…”, to more laughter.
For Sharad, his day job helps implicitly with his writing. “I feel I’m lucky in medicine because you’re exposed to people all the time and they’re always telling you stuff they wouldn’t tell their spouses. Everyday, they come in and there’s another story. How lucky am I?”
He then launches into a story of medical mystery. A woman at 49 presented with hallucinations, insisting she was pregnant by an imaginary Italian lover and the doctors were confounded by it. Sharad then goes on to explain how he diagnosed the woman in a manner Gregory House would’ve been proud of; figuring out that the woman had a tumour on her kidneys that was causing her strange behaviour.
It’s clear that all of Sharad’s experiences and his day job intrinsically affects his writing. He mentions how medicine has become so specialised, many doctors fail to see the big picture. But in Sharad’s writing, all the influences that fit together to create his big picture are apparent.
When Donal took a leave of absence in order to concentrate on writing, he found it an adjustment. “I felt so free” he tells the audience. “From the age of 12 I had never not worked.” In this period though, he said “I didn’t not have a job. I’d been given a fairly substantial amount of money to write a book.” But he adds he did manage to “forget that for two months” as he stayed in his pyjamas and took it easy.
“I said to people ‘I’m being receptive to ideas’ but that the ideas would float away when I started looking at the sky.”
So, in his own words, he started “skulking around UL” and they took him in [he became their writer-in-residence]. “I was writing again, I was relieved. I need a 9-5 job. I find language becoming brittle and dry on me if I don’t use it all the time.”
He did admit it was “great to feel like you have nothing to do”, but it’s a false comfort. “You never have nothing to do. There’s always a mild panic in the back of my head, getting louder and louder.”
Sharad says “I think writers block is laziness to be honest”, which is followed by guaffes and chuckles. “There’s a psychological reason for the laziness – there is a gene and that’s a finely tuned evolutionary adaption” he continues.
“When you know your work is crap, you procrastinate” he says, with a strong ring of truth.
“The other reason is they [the writer] see the end result and where the book is going… and they think the audience won’t like it or it’s not in fashion… but you must write it.”
Sharad takes a rather philosophical approach to writing; something he tries to do everyday between 10pm and 1am after his family has gone to bed. “It’s like tennis. You practice. Some days your better, some days your crap.”
As Sharad begins speaking about switching genres – he writes fiction, non fiction, poetry and medical text – an audience member turns to me and says “He’s a genius.”
He’s not the only one to share the view. A few minutes later, Donal says “If I saw Sharad flying with a cape, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
Donal identifies more with the Colm Toíbin process of writing. “He says every novel he writes is a kind of panic, an emergency.”
Donal handed in a new novel about a month ago and his next one us due next Summer. “I have to get back to my old routine of writing from 9pm until midnight!” he says. Sharad’s next novel is about salmon fishing and autism.
Although both men are extremely busy, they both believe it’s important for writers to create time in order to read too.
“You can’t write without reading at all. It’s the whole craft. You have to read and… you have to absorb it. It’s like cells, you observe information and produce something else” Sharad says.
Donal agrees. “I try to always have a novel on the go and read 20 pages a day at least. It is hard. but before I went back to work, I would sit in my office [in UL] everyday and for one half hour read.”
For Donal, the proximity and exposure to language and it’s use is an important part of his writing process. “It’s something you have to be disciplined about.”
When it comes to the pros and cons of the art of writing, they both have set views.
“I think that having pressure of having regular job and not having enough time [is good]… you have to write because you want to write. I actually think having extra pressure is good because it pushes you to do it… if you just knuckle down, the work just comes” Sharad says.
For Donal, he has to “have this comfort of knowing were covered. I can’t take chances in certain ways. I need to have security. I have to have a job. Joseph O’Connor said to me once nobody should be just a writer and most writers tend to be other things too… I think you lose something of yourself if you ‘just’ are a writer.”
As the event draws to a close, it’s clear that writing is and probably always will be a risky profession. It’s a risk to put your work out there, it’s a risk deciding to pursue a professional writing career and it’s a risk on whether future work will be successful. It is one that, while both men have taken, they have not done so to the neglect of all else. Perhaps this is the best path for those who wish to become professional writers; to do so while maintaining another profession.
But the spectre of the road not taken is never far from the mind. Donal shares a story of a MA student he had a few years ago who was a gifted writer. Donal was his teacher and he said to him that he was going to stop in his pursuit of a law degree and focus fully on writing. Donal told him not to.
It’s something he wonders about now; whether he gave him the right advice, whether the young man finds the time to eek out and dedicate it to writing while he maintains a successful law degree.